Heading off to college is a big adjustment for all students, but the “hidden curriculum” of college policies, unspoken expectations, and procedures feels like another world if you’re a first-generation student. (First generation is usually defined as neither parent having earned a four-year college degree.) Using campus resources helps first-gen students adjust and gain confidence, but they often don’t know where to turn for guidance or aren’t sure what the resources are, says Jeremy Kinsman, the former Assistant Director of Upward Bound at Cornell University who is currently working on a doctorate related to first-generation students.
These days, with more first-gen students attending college, institutions understand that figuring it out shouldn’t be all on you. Some colleges offer pre-orientations or classes on the first-gen experience. The University Innovation Alliance, a group of 11 universities focused on increasing the number and diversity of college graduates, encourages universities to consider how their policies and communication affect students. “Navigating college is complex for any student, and especially so for those whose families haven’t shared the experience,” says Anna Drake Warshaw, PhD, Director of Partnerships, Learning, and Evaluation at UIA. Whether or not your college has good resources specific to first-gen students, rest assured it does want to help you. Colleges abound with student affairs services for all students, and everyone wants you to succeed. Here are the resources you might not know about, along with some tips for making the most of your college experience.
More four-year campuses are offering voluntary pre-orientation programs to help first-gen students acclimate to campus. They’re usually scheduled a few days before regular orientation and give students a chance to make connections, learn about campus resources and staff, and explore what it means to be a first-gen student. Take advantage of this valuable resource if your college offers it.
Some campuses have a specific center to address questions, provide guidance, and offer a space to connect with other first-gen students. It might provide peer mentoring like Seattle University’s First to Soar program does by pairing an upperclassman with a small group of first- or second-year students. Stop in to see what your school offers.
Tutoring and writing centers
Every campus has a learning resource center that provides more than tutoring. You can get pointers on study skills, overall study plans, time management, English-language tutoring, and how to prepare for finals. Studying in college is very different from high school, and every student can benefit from targeted skills help, whether they’re first gen or not.
There’s also the campus writing center, ready to help you fine-tune your writing skills. Kinsman, a first-generation student himself, remembers thinking the writing center was for deficient students. “One professor really encouraged me to go. What blew my mind was there were no D and F students there—it was the A and B students,” he says.
A good academic advisor not only helps you stay on track with choosing the right classes, but they get to know you, your interests, and your career plans. Use them as a sounding board. If you’re dealing with outside stressors like family responsibilities or a job issue, they can point you to resources. Some institutions provide mandatory advising, while it’s optional at others. Optional or not, it’s best to visit your academic advisor at least once a semester.
Too many students delay visiting the career center until senior year or rely solely on its online resources, but you’ll benefit by going early and being there in person. Resources include interview practice, résumé help, job and internship postings, and career coaching. Graduating without laying your career groundwork makes a successful job placement more difficult, so make time to stop in.
Office hours are when your professors are sitting in their offices waiting for students to drop by with questions about assignments or to introduce themselves. Go visit. It’s not an imposition—it’s an expectation. Successful students work on building relationships with their professors. Down the road, professors who have gotten to know you can write a more detailed, honest letter of recommendation, alert you to a research opportunity, or inform you about scholarships.
For students of color, an intercultural or multicultural center provides you with a social center and community base with other students from a variety of backgrounds. Campuses will also typically have a gender and sexuality center. These centers provide a place to hang out, plus support, advocacy, programming, and education for the larger campus community.
Financial aid office
Sadly, it’s not uncommon for low-income students to drop out their senior year because they can’t pay their bills and their grant or scholarship has run out. Colleges recognize the struggle and some are offering “completion grants”—micro-grants to help students cross the finish line (see what UIA is doing). Before you make a drastic decision, talk to your financial aid office about extra help.
Many campuses, particularly public universities, recognize how many low-income students experience food insecurity. The College and University Food Bank Alliance has over 800 member institutions that host food pantries. Find out if your school does and what it takes to qualify to use it.
More tips for first-generation students
First of all, Warshaw wants you to understand that who you are and what you bring are valuable contributions to the campus community, from your personal and life experience to your family relationships. Everyone has something unique to contribute, and that’s good for your campus. Knowing you’re valuable to the community, here’s what else experts recommend you do to maximize your experience.
Talk to people
College isn’t just about academics—it’s the connections you cultivate that make your educational experience so powerful. “Talk to fellow students, administrators, staff, and your professors,” Kinsman recommends. Making connections is especially important for first-gen students. Building a campus network helps you navigate college structures like financial aid and registering for classes; it also leads to a richer and more supportive experience overall.
Seek a mentor
One of the most valuable college experiences is getting to know faculty and staff and developing a relationship with a mentor, Warshaw says. Often a mentor is a faculty member, but they could also be an older student, an advisor, or someone else who guides you. The right mentor for you emerges over time as you connect and get to know someone. It shouldn’t feel forced.
It’s not easy if you have an off-campus job or family commitments, but it’s important to get involved on campus. It could be a club, an intramural sport, or doing research for a faculty member. Maybe you can work part-time on campus in a role that’s related to your field of study. “There are so many incredible opportunities to get involved on campus that you can structure around work or family obligations,” Warshaw says.
Get help when you need it
Even when you don’t need help, you can seek it out. You don’t have to be struggling to get study tips from the tutoring center. Colleges are filled with supportive people ready to guide you. It’s their job to help. “It was so sad to see students come to us after the fact because they couldn’t pay rent and got into money troubles,” Kinsman says. “They didn’t realize we could maybe help them out with a little loan or a bit more from the university.”
Did you know you can get scholarships for being a first-gen student? Find free money for college with our Scholarship Search tool.